As young workaholics, Claire and I did not need alarm clocks, especially for Monday mornings, when we faced an entire week of challenges. We were up at five, eating cereal at five-thirty, then off in separate directions, practically racing to see who could leave first.
Because of the wine, I had managed to sleep without being haunted by the nightmare of the weekend. And as I drove to the office, I was determined to place some distance between myself and the street people. I would endure the funeral. I would somehow find the time to do pro bono work for the homeless. I would pursue my friendship with Mordecai, probably even become a regular in his office. I would drop in occasionally on Miss Dolly and help her feed the hungry. I would give money and help raise more of it for the poor. Certainly I could be more valuable as a source of funds than as another poverty lawyer.
Driving in the dark to the office, I decided that I needed a string of eighteen-hour days to readjust my priorities. My career had suffered a minor derailment; an orgy of work would straighten things out. Only a fool would jump away from the gravy train I was riding.
I chose a different elevator from Mister's. He was history; I shut him out of my mind. I did not look at the conference room where he died. I threw my briefcase and coat on a chair in my office and went for coffee. Bouncing down the hallway before six in the morning, speaking to a colleague here, a clerk there, removing my jacket, rolling up my sleeves it was great to be back.
I scanned The Wall Street Journal first, partly because I knew it would have nothing to do with dying street people in D.C. Then, the Post. On the front page of the Metro section, there was a small story about Lontae Burton's family, with a photo of her grandmother weeping outside an apartment building. I read it, then put it aside. I knew more than the reporter, and I was determined not to be distracted.
Under the Post was a plain manila legal-sized file, the kind our firm used by the millions. It was unmarked, and that made it suspicious. It was just lying there, ex posed, on the center of my desk, placed there by some anonymous person. I opened it slowly.
There were only two sheets of paper inside. The first was a copy of yesterday's story in the Post, the same one I'd read ten times and shown to Claire last night. Under it was a copy of something lifted from an official Drake & Sweeney file. The heading read: EVICTEES--RIVEROAKS/TAG, INC.
The left-hand column contained the numbers one through seventeen. Number four was DeVon Hardy. Number fifteen read: Lontae Burton, and three or four children.
I slowly laid the file on the desk, stood and walked to the door, locked it, then leaned on it. The first couple of minutes passed in absolute silence. I stared at the file in tile center of the desk. I had to assume it was true and accurate. Why would anyone fabricate such a thing? Then I picked it up again, carefully. Under the second sheet of paper, on the inside of the file itself, my anonymous informant had scribbled with a pencil: The eviction was legally and ethically wrong.
It was printed in block letters, in an effort to avoid detection should I have it analyzed. The markings were faint, the lead hardly touching the file.
* * *
I kept the door locked for an hour, during which time I took tums standing at the window watching the sunrise and sitting at my desk staring at the file. The traffic increased in the hallway, and then I heard Polly's voice. I unlocked the door, greeted her as if everything was swell, and proceeded to go through the motions.
The morning was packed with meetings and conferences, two of them with Rudolph and clients. I performed adequately, though I couldn't remember anything we said or did. Rudolph was so proud to have his star back at full throttle.
I was almost rude to those who wanted to chat about the hostage crisis and its aftershocks. I appeared to be the same, and I was my usual hard-charging self, so the concerns about my stability vanished. Late in the morning, my father called. I could not remember the last time he'd called me at the office. He said it was raining in Memphis; he was sitting around the house, bored, and, well, he and my mother were worried about me. Claire was fine, I explained; then to find safe ground, I told him about her brother James, a person he had met once, at the wedding. I sounded properly concerned about Claire's family, and that pleased him.
Dad was just happy to reach me at the office. I was still there, making the big money, going after more. He asked me to keep in touch.
Half an hour later, my brother Warner called from his office, high above downtown Atlanta. He was six years older, a partner in another megafirm, a no-holds-barred litigator. Because of the age difference, Warner and I had never been close as kids, but we enjoyed each other's company. During his divorce three years earlier, he had confided in me weekly.
He was on the clock, same as I, so I knew the conversation would be brief. "Talked to Dad," he said. "He told me everything."
"I'm sure he did."
"I understand how you feel. We all go through it. You work hard, make the big money, never stop to help the little people. Then something happens, and you think back to law school, back to the first year, when we were full of ideals and wanted to use our law degrees to save humanity. Remember that?"
"Yes. A long time ago."
"Right. During my first year of law school, they took a survey. Over half my class wanted to do public interest law. When we graduated three years later, everybody went for the money. I don't know what happened."
"Law school makes you greedy."
"I suppose. Our firm has a program where you can take a year off, sort of a sabbatical, and do public interest law. After twelve months, you return as if you never left. You guys do anything like that?"
Vintage Warner. I had a problem, he already had the solution. Nice and neat. Twelve months, I'm a new man. A quick detour, but my future is secure.
"Not for associates," I said. 'Tve heard of a partner or two leaving to work for this administration or that one, then returning after a couple of years. But never an associate."
"But your circumstances are different. You've been traumatized, damned near killed simply because you were a member of the firm. I'd throw my weight around some, tell 'em you need time off. Take a year, then get your ass back to the office."
"It might work," I said, trying to placate him. He was a type A personality, pushy as hell, always one word away from an argument, especially with the family. "I gotta run," ! said. So did he. We promised to talk more later.
Lunch was with Rudolph and a client at a splendid restaurant. It was called a working lunch, which meant we abstained from alcohol, which also meant we would bill the client for the time. Rudolph went for four hundred an hour, me for three hundred. We worked and ate for two hours, so the lunch cost the client fourteen hundred dollars. Our firm had an account with the restaurant, so it would be billed to Drake & Sweeney, and somewhere along the way our bean counters in the basement would find a way to bill the client for the cost of the food as well.
The afternoon was nonstop calls and conferences. Through sheer willpower, I kept my game face and got through it, billing heavily as I went. Antitrust law had never seemed so hopelessly dense and boring.
It was almost five before I found a few minutes alone. I said good-bye to Polly, and locked the door again. I opened the mysterious file and began making random notes on a legal pad, scribblings and flowcharts with arrows striking RiverOaks and Drake & Sweeney from all directions. Braden Chance, the real estate partner I'd confronted about the file, took most of the shots for the firm.
My principal suspect was his paralegal, the young man who had heard our sharp words, and who, seconds later, had referred to Chance as an "ass" when I was leaving their suite. He would know the details of the eviction, and he would have access to the file.
With a pocket phone to avoid any D&S records, I called a paralegal in antitrust. His office was around the corner from mine. He referred me to another, and with little effort I learned that the guy I wanted was Hector Palma. He'd been with the firm about three years, all in real estate. I planned to track him down, but outside the office.
Mordecai called. He inquired about my dinner plans for the evening. "I'll treat," he said.
He laughed. "Of course not. I know an excellent place."
We agreed to meet at seven. Claire was back in her surgeon's mode, oblivious to time, meals, or husband. She had checked in mid-afternoon, just a quick word on the run. Had no idea when she might be home, but very late. For dinner, every man for himself. I didn't hold it against her. She had learned the fast-track lifestyle from me.
* * *
We met at a restaurant near Dupont Circle. The bar at the front was packed with well-paid government types having a drink before fleeing the city. We had a drink in the back, in a tight booth.
"The Burton story is big and getting bigger," he said, sipping a draft beer.
"I'm sorry, I've been in a cave for the past twelve hours. What's happened?"
"Lots of press. Four dead kids and their momma, living in a car. They find them a mile from Capitol Hill, where they're in the process of reforming welfare to send more mothers into the streets. It's beautiful."
"So the funeral should be quite a show."
"No doubt. I've talked to a dozen homeless activists today. They'll be there, and they're planning to bring their people with them. The place will be packed with street people. Again, lots of press. Four little coffins next to their mother's, cameras catching it all for the six o'clock news. We're having a rally before and a march afterward."
"Maybe something good will come from their deaths."
As a seasoned big-city lawyer, I knew there was a purpose behind every lunch and dinner invitation. Mordecai had something on his mind. I could tell by the way his eyes followed nfine.
"Any idea why they were homeless?" I asked, fishing.
"No. Probably the usual. I haven't had time to ask questions."
Driving over, I had decided that I could not tell him about the mysterious file and its contents. It was confidential, known to me only because of my position at Drake & Sweeney. To reveal what I had learned about the activities of a client would be an egregious breach of professional responsibility. The thought of divulging it scared me. Plus, I had not verified anything.
The waiter brought salads, and we began eating. "We had a firm meeting this afternoon," Mordecai said between bites. "Me, Abraham, Sofia. We need some help."
I was not surprised to hear that. "What kind of help?"
"I thought you were broke."
"We keep a little reserve. And we've adopted a new marketing strategy."
The idea of the 14th Street Legal Clinic worried about a marketing strategy was humorous, and that was what he intended. We both smiled.
"If we could get the new lawyer to spend ten hours a week raising money, then he could afford himself."
Another series of smiles.
He continued. "As much as we hate to admit it, our survival will depend on our ability to raise money. The Cohen Trust is declining. We've had the luxury of not begging, but now it's gotta change."
"What's the rest of the job?"
"Street law. You've had a good dose of it. You've seen our place. It's a dump. Sofia's a shrew. Abraham's an ass. The clients smell bad, and the money is a joke."
"How much money?"
"We can offer you thirty thousand a year, but we can only promise you half of it for the first six months."
"The trust closes its books June thirtieth, at which time they'll tell us how much we get for the next fiscal year, beginning July first. We have enough in reserve to pay you for the next six months. After that, the four of us will split what's left after expenses."
"Abraham and Sofia agreed to this?"
"Yep, after a little speech by me. We figure you have good contacts within the established bar, and since you're well educated, nice-looking, bright, and all that crap, you should be a natural at raising money."
"What if I don't want to raise money?"
"Then the four of us could lower our salaries even more, perhaps go to twenty thousand a year. Then to fifteen. And when the trust dries up, we could hit the streets, just like our clients. Homeless lawyers."
"So I'm the future of the 14th Street Legal Clinic?"
"That's what we decided. We'll take you in as a full partner. Let's see Drake & Sweeney top that."
"I'm touched," I said. I was also a bit frightened. The job offer was not unexpected, but its arrival opened a door I was hesitant to walk through.
Black bean soup arrived, and we ordered more beer.
"What's Abraham's story?" I asked.
"Jewish kid from Brooklyn. Came to Washington to work on Senator Moynihan's staff. Spent a few years on the Hill, landed on the street. Extremely bright. He spends most of his time coordinating litigation with pro bono lawyers from big firms. Right now he's suing the Census Bureau to be certain the homeless get counted. And he's suing the D.C. school system to make sure homeless kids get an education. His people skills leave a lot to be desired, but he's great in the back room plotting litigation."
"A career social worker who's been taking night classes in law school for eleven years. She acts and thinks like a lawyer, especially when she's abusing government workers. You'll hear her say, 'This is Sofia Mendoza, Attorney-at-Law,' ten times a day."
"She's also the secretary?"
"Nope. We don't have secretaries. You do your own typing, filing, coffee making." He leaned forward a few inches, and lowered his voice. "The three of us have been together for a long time, Michael, and we've carved out little niches. To be honest, we need a fresh face with some new ideas."
"The money is certainly appealing," I said, a weak effort at humor.
He grinned anyway. "You don't do it for the money. You do it for your soul."
* * *
My soul kept me awake most of the night. Did I have the guts to walk away? Was I seriously considering taking a job which paid so little? I was literally saying good-bye to millions.
The things and possessions I longed for would become fading memories.
The timing wasn't bad. With the marriage over, it somehow seemed fitting that I make drastic changes on all fronts.